Friday, January 04, 2013

Ashura (2005): the kabuki of trash cinema

New Years Eve 2012 brought some fun and unexpected things, like Linguini in Sea Urchin Sauce, and some tragically predictable things, like three different pedestrians throwing up on the subway ride home. New Years Day 2013 -- that brought something else, sometimes amusing, sometimes unexpected, and sometimes inane: a kaidan samurai movie from 2005 called Ashuraj┼Ź no Hitomi (or by its American title, Ashura).

It's been two days since I saw Ashura, and I'm in danger of suddenly and sadly forgetting the entire film. It wasn't the type that lingers in your consciousness for days, eating away at you with its moral ambiguities. The plot is adapted from a 1987 play, and it runs through the standard litany of romantic, kung-fu, and fantasy tropes. The world harbors a secret population of demons, and their requisite containment force, a militant cult called Demon Wardens. During one of their standard purges, one of the Wardens accidentally kills an innocent child, and he decides to retire from the monster killing game. He is only thrust back into it when he encounters a young woman with amnesia, and takes a mysterious personal interest in her. She rapidly complicates his life, and leads him into an entanglement in a long-simmering plot to bring Ashura, the demon queen, back from the dead, according to prophecy.

The film does not look expensive, nor created with any subtlety of craft. Indeed, the cover on the film's Netflix page looks a lot cleaner and more beautiful than any frame within the actual running time. You know the demons because they flash distorted toothy smiles and green eyes, and they splash green blood when they're killed. There are copious badly-rendered backgrounds and strange computer-generated landscapes. Most of the mysterious magic power that manifests is silly CGI fireballs and glowing laser "threads of fate." It's bad cinema in the best tradition, melodramatic and desperate to be impressive in whatever way it can.

Of course, being the forgiving type, I noted all the things I appreciated about it. One of the stock main characters becomes a pretty compelling villain, and the love story that's central to the plot is handled with the kind of soaring drama that's uniquely allotted to unselfconscious trash-cinema stylists. The film's ambitions are kind of endearing. It's also notable in that the true villains of the story are not puppets who embody pure evil, like Bizan... they are all characters who start out as heroes, and whose motivations are twisted by ambition and resentment. Also, "My Funny Valentine" is a pretty awesome closing credits song, totally unexpected and eccentric at the end of a movie like this.

But most interesting to me, above all, was the storyteller's subtext. After he leaves the Demon Warden profession, Izumo, the main character, becomes an actor in a kabuki theater, under direction of a doddering playwright who's forever trying to sacrifice his own employees to demons in order to create drama for his productions. Of course, he ends up writing down the deeds that make up the film. This whole parallel plotline deserves at least a little exploration, before I rate the film on Netflix and stop thinking about it.

The film actively emphasizes the Kabuki element. Izumo is depicted on the banners outside the kabuki theater, and he repeatedly makes the cross-eyed kabuki face... first as an actor in his plays, and later during his confrontations with Bizan, the demon mistress. This may just be meaningless comic detailing, an attempt to add a little spice to a generally boring main character.

To me, though, it actually suggests something about the level of self-awareness that went into the crafting of Ashura (either the film or the play, depending on their differences). Kabuki theater is infamous for its exaggeration and stylization, and at least in Ashura, it's also noted for its high melodrama and tragic conclusions. This is part of what characterizes this very movie... a capricious use of cheap effects, an uninhibited rendering of a desperate, flawed romance, and an intensely stylized, heightened depiction of life in medieval Japan. The film and its director are saying, "We can't create a conventional masterpiece, with the control over tone and setting and style that a larger budget and longer timeline would allow, so we are going to let loose and go all out with those things that we CAN control: the glow effects, the background compositing, and the sentimentality of the performances. We have no reason not to make this as epic as we can, within those parameters."

And when you feel this enthusiasm, this kabuki-inflected confidence and self-regard, you may discover a deeper level to this film's charm. You may allow hold your laughter for a second, and in receiving it as the vast and soaring myth that it wants to be, you may discover a really elemental, beautiful movie, doing its best to escape a second-rate Kabuki fever dream.

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